The portent of Russian meddling in the upcoming presidential election is again with us—and, contra the President’s tone with Vladimir Putin, it demands to be taken seriously. But it is also worth reflecting on the residue of long-ago meddling in American political debate—not by Russia but by its predecessor, the Soviet Union. As the Democrats move sharply left, many of what are now considered mainstream positions were, not that long ago, criticisms and proposals mounted, for propaganda purposes, by the old, hard Left and that have seeped into contemporary liberalism.
As the recent Democratic candidate debate made clear, government-run health care, a major expansion publicly subsidized housing, criticism of business as essentially problematic, and the view that inequality, per se, is an unwelcome feature of a market economy, are mainstream talking points.
Yet these were recurring themes in the American Communist Party press, as a review of the back pages of The Daily World—a party organ published between 1968 and 1990 and the successor to the better-known title, the Daily Worker—shows.
“Equality” was a standing column title in the paper; so, too was “Housing.” The Daily World, in its April 30, 1979 issue, urged government to begin “rebuilding the ghetto, [to fill] the desperate need for housing black and poor families” and, in the process, provide for “new jobs, new careers and new lives for the black and poor.” The campaign language of Elizabeth Warren is similar: Her American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, is to be “a bold and comprehensive affordable housing bill designed to end homelessness and housing poverty in America … through … the first new program in a generation that invests in the production, preservation, and operation of affordable homes for the lowest income people in America.” That private markets must inevitably fail those of modest means is a given. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in her own campaign platform, wrote that she “believes that housing is a right, and that Congress must tip the balance away from housing as a gambling chip for Wall Street banks and fight for accessible housing that’s actually within working families’ reach.”
Indeed, in The Daily World, business motives were always essentially suspect—and expressed in terms of essential corruption that presage Warren. “In a capitalist society,” wrote the paper, “big fish eat little fish. If they can’t do it any other way, they use their overwhelming corporate, political and financial power to force them out of business.” It is not a great leap to the rhetoric of Kamala Harris: “We need to put an end to oil companies manipulating our laws and poisoning our planet.” That the same firms are keys to providing the returns that support the pensions and retirement accounts of millions of Americans matters not. This is not regulatory reform but absolutism.
When Bernie Sanders talks of revolutionary change, when AOC sees housing as a function of a Wall Street cabal, when Elizabeth Warren asserts that America has “one system of justice for the rich and powerful and another for everyone else,” they are echoing the hard Left in a more disturbing way: as with the clamor for slavery reparations, they verge toward the view that the American experiment as a whole is tainted by original sin.
It is the promulgation of this idea that was the goal of the Communist Party press. In the 1930s, when it campaigned for “Equal Rights for Negros,” its goal was not that of Martin Luther King—the extension of constitutional rights to blacks—but, rather, the establishment of a separate, all-black, socialist regime in the South. Put another way, today’s Left Democrats speak as if they share not just The Daily Worlds’ views but its goal: not to reform the American system, but to replace it. The Party was not engaged in a legitimate effort to introduce reforms. Theirs were not the arguments of social democrats. They were, rather, meant to undermine support for the free-market based economy by dwelling on what were viewed as its points of vulnerability—notably race and income distribution. The goal was full-on state ownership of the means of production. Examples of high health care costs, discrimination, inequality of various types were highlighted not as cases of individual or regulatory issues that might call for legal remedy but as illustrations of what was portrayed as fundamentally flawed system. Democrats, consciously or not, are toying dangerously with arguments with just that implication.
It’s also worth noting that the Communist press reported on the news in ways which have become increasingly familiar—and are, as well, the stock in trade of contemporary liberal discourse. Stories of police brutality, protests or incidents which, even if isolated or unusual, were always cast as symptoms of much larger, systemic problems. Thus, The Daily World’s coverage of the Vietnam War focused at length on what it called the Fort Hood Three, a group of black soldiers who refused to serve in Vietnam. It received scant back page coverage in the New York Times. The implicit theme: the war and its draft were racist. The Daily World meanwhile emphasized opposition to the war on the part of “five million union members,” at a time when most coverage focused on student-led protests. Obscure figures such as welfare rights organizer Johnnie Tillman were front page news. A food stamp protest in Chicago merited the headline, “Attention Mr. Reagan: Hunger Stalks the Nation.” In The Daily World, that was always true.
The police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the death Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody were, similarly, not framed as individual incidents to be investigated but prima facia evidence of a police war on black lives. School shootings are not distinct, local events perpetrated by troubled people but part of a wave of gun violence, enabled by an NRA-led conspiracy.
The reach of the contemporary Left extends, of course, beyond news into culture broadly. Indeed, Party member V.J. Jerome noted in a speech to the 1951 Party convention, “Cultural activity is an essential phase of the party’s general ideological work.” And The Daily World included book reviews—and even sports coverage. A full-page poster-style ad, headlined Read the Daily World, summarized the full range of both its policy themes and its vehicles for achieving them. Framed as if ready-made to be a picket sign, it boasted of its support for “Jobs-Equality-Health-Housing-Sports-Entertainment-Education.” They all must “stick together.” And so it has happened. Its Soviet patron may be gone but its arguments linger.
Howard Husock is the vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and the author of the forthcoming book, Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms (Encounter 2019).